Dance Nation @ Almeida Theatre

27th August – 6th October 2018
Dance Nation  @ The Almeida Theatre
Written by Clare Barron
Directed by Bijan Sheibani

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Oh. My. God.

How AMAZING is it to see a female-dominated stage?

(Precursor: This will not be a rant review about this subject)

But genuinely, how unbelievably amazing, and surprising at this present time in the world, is it, to see a show on a main London theatre stage with the seesaw of gender balance teetering towards women? It’s shocking, really.

It is a more common thread now that I research as little as possible about shows before I see them.

Upon arriving at the Almeida, I picked up my ticket and programme and read through. An amazing forward written by Lyn Gardner (bless her reviewing socks) talking about women ‘taking up space’. I want to quote directly from this to set up what I witnessed on the Almeida stage.

‘In the very act of being performed, Dance Nation makes a stand by occupying space on stages which have historically been given over for the most part to male playwrights and male experience…… The young women in Dance Nation cannot be silenced. They fill up space and demand to be seen. You can shut your eyes, but they will still be there. They are not going away.’

Bloody hell, eh?

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The story of Dance Nation is reminiscent of any time you may have accidentally or not so accidentally watched ‘Dance Moms’. That trashy and brilliant tv show about preteens and their pushy mums in dance competitions.

Except this is told differently.

The story of pre-adolescence and growing up under the pressure of a dance world.

These young women’s stories are told in adult bodies. Which was an utterly brilliant choice as it made the story translatable, understandable and easier to connect to.

We have all been young children, confused and unsure and because these young girls were played by adult women, we could connect so much more deeply with the story.

The youth was genuine and not overemphasised. It was entirely believable.

All dance and movement was very basic but done exquisitely. We were not watching a West End musical. It wasn’t necessary. The expression and clarity in the movement and dance was all that was needed.

This is the beauty of simplicity in storytelling. You don’t need lots of costume changes and backdrops.

You don’t need bells and whistles when the human condition is performed and written so exquisitely.

The individual monologues (that were transitioned into so easily) were breathtaking. The one that stood out for me was Ashlee’s (performed by Kayla Meikle). A young girl afraid of her power. Afraid of her beauty. Afraid of her intelligence. Heartfelt and full of passion and fire. This performance was a punch to the gut and a slap across the face. How often as young girls were we made to feel like we had to make ourselves small or silence our fire under the male gaze?

I would be interested to have seen this show with a man, as I felt such a deep connection to this show having had the experience of being a young girl.

I loved this show on the whole. Simple, beautiful and completely challenging conceptions of being a young woman and facing life, sexuality and growing up.

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Super Hamlet 64 @ The Cockpit

Produced and presented by Eddy Day

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Trans/non-binary performer Eddy Day has many talents, and all of them are on display in this 90 minute show – song, mime, banter, many musical instruments, creative animation. It’s an exploration of what games mean to us and how we struggle with roles society imposes.

Despite Day’s skill, the show drags – it’s hard for one actor to maintain energy for over an hour, playing multiple characters with increasingly similar accents. Long segments felt unnecessary but for a single, simple joke or reference which frequently failed to support the show’s overarching message.

The music and projections were impressive, but not enough to support the text, which staggered under the the weight of lengthy quotation from a range of high and low culture texts.

The script was strongest when Day was original – there’s a few good monologues in there about living up to expectations and coming to terms with death – but the accompanying full 12 point font A4 page of video games referenced shows that there’s not enough focus in the show.

Full disclosure: I am obsessed with Hamlet. I’ve directed the play, I have most of it memorised, read essays about it for fun.

At one point, Day states, with ukulele accompaniment, that they’ve stuck pretty close to the spirit of the original. And they have, to an extent. Hamlet is also very long and discursive and filled with odd asides which add little to the main text. Day, as I’m sure they’re aware, is no Shakespeare. They’re clearly fond of the play, but has failed to interrogate or transform it.

In this production, Hamlet is simply another text to be quoted, as meaningful as any of the many, many video games which are referenced. It provides flavour, but could have been replaced with any other tragedy.

Secondary disclosure: I love video games. I sunk seven hours into Curse of Monkey Island last week and have strong opinions about Metal Gear.

Again – the video games are just there to provide flavour. There are so many touched on – through word play or complex visual presentations – that none of them are meaningful. A ten minute Portal reference? A motorcycle riding Ophelia? Rosa and Crash and Guile and Stan? It becomes noise, distracting from the core of what Day seems to be trying to get at.

Buried under the flurry of references, there’s a good 45 minute show about expectations and mortality, but it has to be exhumed from a pile of extraneous nonsense so tall it makes Ossa a wart.

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The Egg Rumour, The Brew Makers Theatre Co @ The Cockpit, Marylebone

Produced and presented by The Brew Makers Theatre Co

Written by Ellamae Cieslik

The Egg Rumour is an original musical about the “new corporate perk” of egg freezing so that women can work more and longer hours without being distracted by their reproductive needs.

The script was written and produced by the lead actor, Ellamae Cieslik. It uses intentionally shallow characters to mount a social critique on the corporate world which treats its employees as interchangeable resources with no regard for their actual desires. It focuses, however, on a fairly narrow target – egg freezing is a relatively small issue for women in the workplace, and I was surprised to see it spun out into an entire hour.

The script is strongest when it leans into humour – there are a few laugh-out-loud moments based on misogynistic etiquette manuals and good comedic timing. However, as the piece clips along quickly, without giving most of the characters names or any realistic depth, the more dramatic moments lack any emotional punch. There were moments that felt undeveloped or unresolved – the Egg Whisperer is consistently mentioned but only gets to speak in a single didactic monologue, and the sexy doctor seems like he’ll be more important than he is.

The performances are engaging, including some capable singing and a little fun choreography – the original songs are simple and effective jazz style pieces that work in the context of the show. The set and costume design are minimal and cleverly done.

Overall, the Egg Rumour feels like the first draft of a piece that could be a more complex exploration of women in the corporate environment – worth a look but not groundbreaking.

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Denied Under Section 221(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act by Connie Wookey @ South London Theatre, West Norwood

Devised and performed by Connie Wookey

Connie Wookey (yes that is her real name) is a charming and talented performer who has composed a fun 45 minute show about some distressing topics.

Essentially a light comedy cabaret about things in life we can’t control, “Denied Under Section 221(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act” touches on sexual harassment, malfunctioning planes and being an actress in New York, though doesn’t go into revelatory depth on any of these topics. Everything is dealt with simply, with a refreshing directness.

Some of Wookey’s songs and stories are touching, others feel a little like narrow casting – not all audiences are going to be able to identify or empathise with jokes about the vagaries of working as an actor or being middle class.

It’s an enjoyable show: a pleasant night out with an appealing host in Wookey.

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Artist’s website

Bury the Hatchet, Out of the Forest Theatre @ The Hope Theatre, Islington

24 July – 11 August

Written by Sasha Wilson, further devised by the company
Cast: Joseph Harrison, David Leopold and Sasha Wilson
Design: David Spence
Lighting Design: Will Alder
Produced by Joseph Cullen, Sarah Divall and Claire Gilbert for Out of the Forest Theatre

Photo Credits: Reg Madison/Liam Bessell

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Bury the Hatchet is a re-visiting of the famous Lizzie Borden story, performed in the black-box studio of The Hope Theatre, Islington. Upon entering we find Sasha Wilson, the actor who plays Lizzie and herself as the playwright, kneeling on the floor in a lace black dress (wearing matching Etsy style earrings of Lizzie Borden) at the centre of radiating family portraits splattered with red blood. Sasha copies details from a hefty history tome into a notebook, presumably crafting the play we’re about to see. Above, a lit hatchet dangles from a rigged loop of rope.  Stringed instruments – a violin, a banjo, etc. – crowd the back of the stage. A resonant whistle fills the space as Joseph Harrison and David Leopold enter, completing the ensemble cast, and we’re off.

What follows is an investigation of the persevering mystery, nagging happenstance, and odd Victorian social hang-ups that contributed to the peculiar and unresolved case of Lizzie Borden, who was accused of the murder of her father and step-mother by hatchet in 1892. (Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks…etc.)

In the play, Sasha claims that she initially set out to write a historically accurate show. What results is an interesting frisson between Lizzie Borden pop-lore, the dramatisation of primary sources and the beginning of the playwright’s inquiry into both Lizzie’s motivation and her own fascination with the story, set to a gorgeous prairie bluegrass soundtrack.

Sasha’s exploration feels strongest when the playwright reflects on what she finds interesting about the murder and its circumstance – weaving together a possible psychology for Lizzie, before revising her theories with a new set of supporting facts. Her desire to find something else in Lizzie’s motivations, and Lizzie’s relationships with her sister Emma and the family maid Bridget, even if only through supposition, brings new life to the nursery rhyme.

Joseph Harrison and David Leopold had a markedly generous energy and seamlessly led the audience through the thorny mystery, expertly playing a bevvy of supporting characters. The ensemble was silly and charming, the piece defined by a meta-humour that buoyed along the more serious themes, allowing a critique of the original trial, both with facts, fictions and digressions.

The atmosphere was intimate and immersive, aided by a subtle choreographed movement, well-articulated by the actors and magnetic in the space. Within the studio, Will Alder created a moody, oil-painting lighting scape, with wisps of more electric horror, highlighting the ensemble’s striking arrangements (both musical/physical) beneath the ever-hanging hatchet.

The style sang best when it positioned its author as architect of the inquiry. Sasha Wilson is particularly compelling when she filters Lizzie through the lens of her own experience, reflecting on the awakening Lizzie might have felt after her first European tour, or interrogating her own relationship with death. While the details of the crime are teasingly interesting, the question of what is true remains locked in time and I found the pursuit of what might be understood, or re-interpreted from the vantage of now, to be far more engaging.

Overall, the piece was rich and evocative, expertly conjuring the feeling of vaudevillian horror as well as identifying something at the heart of our ongoing fascination with “guilty” true crime celebrities and Lizzie’s relatable, out of time refusal to have less.

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Bluebird @ The Space  

24 July – 4 August, 2018

by Simon Stephens
Directed by Adam Hemming
Presented by Space Productions

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I ventured to The Space in East London on a warm Wednesday evening to watch Bluebird by Olivier award-winning playwright Simon Stephens, and I have no regrets. Upon entering the square black box theatre I was surprised by the dynamic staging of a raised platform shaped as a cross with seating in each corner. As I sat listening to ‘All Saints’ singing ‘Never ever have I ever felt so low…’ (on hindsight, a perfect choice) nothing could prepare me for the stories I was about to be told (and how brilliantly they were told!).

We followed the working day of taxi driver Jimmy Macneill, played by the incredibly talented John Kearne, as he drives a diverse range of people down the streets of London. Within the scene’s each ‘fare’ (the person getting the taxi) opens up to Jimmy, sharing secrets, experiences and opinions. This text-based show could have been a lengthy nightmare. However, it was successfully put together by the director Adam Hemming who obviously had an eye for detail, which is incredibly important in such an intimate space. Each scene was given the space to breathe yet kept its pace, and the text was certainly the focus (as it should be with Simon Stephen’s words!). The naturalistic style was on point, especially the driving by John Kearne, and it allowed us to be completely immersed in the characters and their stories.

Subtle, yet effective transitions lead our eyes to different points of the stage and were an essential break between the emotional storytelling. Similarly the props and set were minimal and always relevant. It is important for the space to not be overcrowded when the focus is on the actors, especially when you have a cast like this one! I was blown away by the talent on stage; one of the first ‘fares’ in Jimmy’s taxi was Robert Greenwood, played by the captivating Mike Duran who delivered his monologue with such honesty and emotion that I could not hold help but hang off his every word. Similarly, Anna Dolan, who played the role of Jimmy’s wife Clare Macneill, was a force to be reckoned with. She is the type of actress I could watch perform every night for a year and still be amazed.

Space productions drove me to reflect on my own life, and consider the hopes and regrets people live with each day. An incredible piece of writing matched with an incredible cast… you would be crazy not to go see it!

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Lamplighters, Rogue Productions @ The Old Red Lion Theatre

24 July – 18 August 2018

Created by Neil Connolly and Dean Rodgers
Rogue Productions

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Winner of the London’s VAULT Festival 2018’s People’s Choice Award, Lamplighters is a hard-to-forget night out. Neil Connolly plays host in a part spy-thriller, part improv-comedy farse that sees it’s audience moonlight as secret agents with hysterical results.

The show takes you through a very familiar spy adventure plot with clandestine meetings and high-pressure heists. The catch is that Connoly himself only hosts, every shady character, corpse, location, mission objective and piece of musical score, is plucked from the audience.

It’s just a ton of fun. No other way to put it. Even if you don’t want to participate, this show will have you in stitches.

Connoly is a magnetic and very charismatic host. the mechanics of the show’s gameplay is very clever, the lights and props and staging work wonderfully to enhance and create all sorts of comedic effects, which are entirely participatory in the shows descending chaos.

As with all improv comedy, I imagine it’s very dependant on the audience on the night. I was lucky enough to be in a group who revelled in the experience as much as Neil himself did, and who happened to be hilarious in their own right. It was a big bonus for me, but I can guess that even on a bad night this will be a show that leaves you grinning from ear-to-ear.

If you are looking for a good night out with a mate, look no further.

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Pigspurt’s Daughter, Daisy Campbell @ Hampstead Theatre

11th – 14th July 2018
Written and Performed by Daisy Campbell

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In Pigspurt’s Daughter, Daisy Campbell marks the 10-year anniversary of her father cult theatre figure Ken Campbell’s death.

At the beginning of the show, Daisy Campbell tells us that she has been putting off sorting through the artefacts of her father’s theatrical legacy for the decade since.

The stage reflects this, boxed shelves display comedy props such as Ken’s joke-shop dick nose and laughing mirror (his cure for depression), posters from his many shows, media quotes, close-ups of his buttocks shaped nose, his notebooks, The Illuminatus Trilogy that he famously adapted, and other texts that have informed his work; a shrine-cum-studio-cum-storage unit amongst which Daisy performs her first one-woman show.

Daisy invokes her father’s legacy as a comedic genius and experimental theatre-maker, telling his stories; performing a nasally Ken Campbell instantly recognisable to the audience. Daisy’s childhood was spent watching her father’s one-man shows, hanging out in the Hackney Marshes where they lived on their boat The Snark, and attending Robert Mckee’s Story Structure Course. Daisy has used this education to architect a memoir fitting of a master storyteller.

Daisy Campbell is a spell-binding performer – confident, charismatic and enticing as she weaves together seemingly disparate events and ideas into a swirling tapestry of meaning (and mycelium). Early in the show Daisy relates the findings of the split-self experiments of neuroscientist Gazzaniga, the contents of which she encountered in an old documentary narrated by her father. Daisy explains that there is a gap where the self should be and what in fact inhabits that gap, according to Gazzaniga, is our interpreter, or as Daisy prefers to put it, her storyteller. The storyteller’s job is to make sense of the world, creating the illusion of meaning and purpose, only masquerading as the Self. As Robert Mckee puts it, the story exists in The Gap between expectation and what’s really happening. Incidentally, Mckee thought Ken Campbell was the greatest storyteller he ever met.

Daisy becomes suspect of her own storyteller and its “soap-opera sensibilities”, and decides to feed it a glut of story set-ups, mystifying it by handing out tarot cards to friends without explanation or the possibility of pay-off, challenging the storyteller’s ability to produce meaning, and so in over-drive, it finds meaning in everything. Daisy reports how things get weird when you mess with your storyteller, but this is just the beginning as Daisy begins to see and find Gaps everywhere.

Through a series of semi-serendipitous events, threaded together like the hyphae of the recurring image of the mycelium, Daisy is possessed by her father’s demonic character Pigspurt, (from his Evening Standard Critic’s Choice Best Comedy awarded show at the National Theatre of the same name) through an accident of gastromancy, a rectal invocation of dead spirits. (In the original NT production of Pigspurt, the demon is finally exorcised when Ken finds the female buttocks that matches the shape of his nose.)

Her father as Pigspurt takes over the voice of her storyteller, making a deal with Daisy that she can use Ken’s old stories if she promises to drive the story to the end of the line, to find Robert Mckee’s Negation of the Negation, and so to go farther than her father. So naturally, Daisy begins seeking the solution to exorcise Pigspurt, to get her father out of her arse so she can then figuratively get out from inside his arse and locate her missing Self. Daisy references the disappointment she was to Ken for not becoming a Russian gymnast or someone who whazzes particles together at CERN in Switzerland.

If the ideas in the show seem dense, complex and the allusions sometimes lofty, they are. But Daisy Campbell is a compelling, warm guide through these entwined ideas, inventing the perfect theatrical vessel to honour her father, and the worldview and stories she inherited from him. And she’s just so outrageously funny doing it, her charm, irresistible; on the knife-edge between child-like and preternaturally canny.

The play crept up on themes of grief, loss and love without a hint of the performative pain that sometimes rides shotgun to these topics, addressing instead the feeling that is revealed by these experiences, of a collapsing narrative; and the sensation of a Gap where your Self should be.

And while you might be tempted to reduce the piece to its thematic jus like I have just done, the strength of the work lies in its refusal to be simplified. The power of the story is in its swirling associations and circuitous exploration of the Gap and the Self, complicating the need for definition with its form, artfully hijacking narrative to ultimately discredit it.

Daisy both questions the compulsion to create meaning and fill “the Gap” while also enriching the autobiographical show with the many fictions that were the foundation of Ken and Daisy’s relationship. While it’s very clever, it’s also just full of really entertaining, outlandish micro-stories and robust comedy.

Daisy does provide Act 3 pay-offs, the Negation of the Negation turns out to be something hilarious and disturbing, performed in Ken’s old fat-suit. The subsequent resolution is so Hollywood and comparatively clichéd within the overall show, that fresh surprise is found in the obviousness of its revelation; a tongue-in-cheek ending provided after Daisy has spent the last 2 hours challenging our desire for a recognisable narrative arc (re:protuberance). As Daisy confirms in conversation with her dead father, she made narrative the antagonist. Her way of seeing the world, a hallucinogenic.

The structure may at some points feel convoluted, but I think this show is comedic, meticulously crafted genius and a joyful ride from start to finish. You don’t need to be familiar with Ken Campbell’s work, Daisy does a fantastic job of bringing the man to life in front of you, and produces a show that services the idea of him as a beloved public figure while still illuminating a relationship, if peculiar, between a child and parent who was larger than life, and the need to live up to and beyond them.

As Ken Campbell used to say, “Critics never tell the truth, namely that in actual fact it’s all bollocks”. As I couldn’t resist such an easy feed, this show is hilarious, human, esoteric, relatable, dizzying, exceptional bollocks.

31 August        The British Library, London

9 September   Slung Low’s The Hub, Leeds

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Shitfaced Shakespeare: Romeo & Juliet @ Leicester Square Theatre

Developed by Magnificent Bastard Productions
Original Direction and adaption- Lewis Ironside
Director and Lead Producer- Stacey Norris

23rd June- 1st September- Leicester Square Theatre

A Great Night out

shtfaceshakespeare-copyright-al-overdrive-700.jpgMagnificent Bastard Productions have been running shitfaced Shakespeare for eight years. The show is always a hit and a must see at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The unique idea behind Shitfaced Shakespeare is that one actor is outrageously drunk. The other four or five actors are all completely sober and have to stumble their way through the piece. This year it was the turn of the famous love story ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

The actor who is drunk changes each night. Last night it was Juliet who was drunk which was very funny. The actress was an entertaining drunk and came across well, she was very likeable. The first half of the play was great and the audience were in hysterics. The rest of the cast are very strong, particularly Romeo who was very quick at improvisation when Juliet threw some tricky situations his way.

However, as the play went on the focus began to drift and the play got a bit hectic. I feel the company need to add something different and exciting in the second half of the play to keep the audience engaged. This performance was very funny but there were too many sexual innuendos from sober cast members which were not needed.

Shitfaced Shakespeare is a great night out and a must see for all comedy fans. I believe it would be enjoyed more by those who are not sober. So grab some drinks and a couple of mates and enjoy Shakespeare as the man himself would have wanted you too.

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GUY, Leoe&Hyde @ The Bunker

Music, Production by Stephen Hyde

Book, Lyrics by Leoe Mercer

Directed by Sam Ward

16 June – 7 July

GUY is a fun, fresh musical about friendship, love and Grindr. The music was slick, catchy computer pop – think SOPHIE and Sam Smith – and the lyrics were packed with word play and nerd references. It’s a minimalist show, with four actors, an almost empty set and a pre-recorded score but it does so much with this. Each actor displayed a polished, engaging performance – singing, dancing, deploying excellent comedic timing and dramatic chops. I couldn’t identify a stand out performer, since all four were strong talents who were a joy to watch.

It speaks to the the paucity of media by and for queer people, but it was relieving to see a story with no straight people in it. It’s not a story about homophobia or coming out or finding your identity, or even AIDS – all worthy stories to be sure, but it’s nice to see what’s essentially a gay rom-com. Which is not to say the story takes place in a queer utopia – Grindr, the story’s framing device, is famous for distilling racism, sexism and body dismorphia into the callous dismissal: “No fats, no femmes, no asians”. All these issues are identified and addressed in the show – there are shades of Cyrano De Bergerac in that so many characters feel they have to hide themselves from those they love due to perceived prejudice.

The show has the breezy positivity you want from a musical about falling in love, and the exceptional cast keep you engaged throughout an hour and a half run with very little lag. I recommend this show.

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